Copyright (c) 2000 First Things 103 (May 2000): 15-22.
It could be said that the twentieth century has witnessed the disappearance, or withering away, of political philosophy. An old–fashioned empirical proof of this statement is easy to produce: certainly no Hegel, no Marx, even no Comte, has lived in our century, able to convey to the few and the many alike a powerful vision of our social and political statics and dynamics.
However highly we might think of the philosophical capacities and results of Heidegger, Bergson, Whitehead, or Wittgenstein, we would not single out any of them for his contribution to political philosophy. Heidegger, it is true, ventured into some political action, including speeches, but it is a matter for deep regret. Heidegger’s was the steepest fall; on a much lower level, there was Sartre’s indefatigable vituperation against anything rational or decent in civic life.
It is true that contrariwise, authors like Sir Karl Popper and Raymond Aron have been worthy contributors to both general epistemology and political inquiry, always in a spirit of sturdy and humane citizenship. And some modern representatives of that venerable tradition of thought, Thomism, have offered serious reflection on moral, social, and political problems within a comprehensive account of the world. But despite such countervailing considerations, the general diagnosis seems to me to be inescapable: no modern original philosopher has been willing or able to include a thorough analysis of political life within his account of the human world, or, conversely, to elaborate his account of the whole from an analysis of our political circumstances.
To be sure, the effort to understand social and political life did not cease in this century. It even underwent a huge expansion through the extraordinary development of the social sciences, which have increasingly determined the self–understanding of modern men and women. It might be asserted that the collective and multifaceted work of all those sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists, economists, and political scientists has shed more light on our common life than could the exertions of any individual mind, however gifted; that, when it comes to understanding our social and political life, this "collective thought" is necessarily more impartial than even a mind as impartial as Hegel’s; that in this sense political philosophy, including democratic political philosophy, has an undemocratic character since it cannot be so collectivized; and that accordingly its withering away is a natural accompaniment to the consolidation and extension of democracy.
As is the case with all collective enterprises, the social sciences have many more practitioners than they do ideas and principles. I would even argue that they rest upon one sole principle, the separation of facts and values, which sets them apart from philosophy and testifies to their scientific character. The demise of political philosophy is of a piece with the triumph of this principle. I admit that generally such sweeping statements are better avoided. Nevertheless it is a fact that the fact/value distinction has become not only the presupposition of present–day social science but also the prevalent opinion in society at large. In present conditions, a teenager proves his or her coming of age, a citizen proves his or her competence and loyalty, by making use of this principle. Nowhere has the principle been set forth with more power and brilliance than in the work of Max Weber. The limitless and tormented landscape of twentieth–century social and political thought is commanded by Weber’s towering presence and overwhelming influence.
Speaking before students just after the end of World War I, Weber asks about his duty as a teacher, about what his audience, and the public at large, can legitimately require of him. He answers, in reflections later published as Science as a Vocation, that they have a claim on his intellectual probity: the teacher, as a scientist, has the obligation to acknowledge that to establish the intrinsic structures of cultural values and to evaluate those values constitute two totally distinct tasks. Weber rigorously distinguishes between science, which ascertains facts and relations between facts, and life, which necessarily involves evaluation and action.
This proposition has become commonplace today, yet it is difficult to understand what exactly it means. To give an example that is more than an example, how does one describe what goes on in a concentration camp without evaluating it? As some commentators have pointed out, Weber, in his historical and sociological studies, does not tire of evaluating even when establishing the facts; no, he ceaselessly evaluates so as to be able to establish the facts. Otherwise how could he tell a "prophet" from a "charlatan"?
However that may be, it is clear that for Weber, intellectual honesty necessarily prevents us from believing or teaching that science can show us how we ought to live; and that this same intellectual probity necessarily prevents us from believing, for instance, that a thing is good because it is beautiful, or the other way around. But what are the causes of his peculiar preoccupation with intellectual probity? In Weber’s opinion, modern science exposes it to a specific danger.
Modern science exhibits a singular trait: it is necessarily unfinished—it can never be completed. It is open–ended, since there is always more to be known. Weber asks why human beings devote themselves to an activity that can never be completed, why they ceaselessly try to know what they know they will never completely know. The meaning of modern science is to be meaningless. Thus intellectual honesty requires that we not confer an arbitrary meaning on science, that we be faithful to its meaninglessness by fearlessly carrying on its enterprise. This necessary virtue is at the same time inhuman, or superhuman; indeed it is heroic. Since heroism, however necessary, is rare, many so–called scholars or teachers succumb to the temptation to confer arbitrarily some human meaning on science, or its provisional results. Weber believed that the scientist who thus lapses from his duty transforms himself into a petty demagogue or a petty prophet.
What characterizes the modern situation is that only science can be the object of public affirmation or approbation. Other "values"—for instance, esthetic or religious "values"—cannot be publicly expressed with enough sincerity to hold their own in the public square. At the end of Science as a Vocation, we read:
The fate of an epoch characterized by rationalization, intellectualization, most of all by the disenchantment of the world, led human beings to expel the most sublime and supreme values from public life. They found refuge either in the transcendent realm of mystical life or in the fraternity of direct and reciprocal relationships among isolated individuals. There is nothing fortuitous in the fact that the most eminent art of our time is intimate, not monumental, nor in the fact that nowadays it is only in small communities, in face–to–face contacts, in pianissimo, that we are able to recover something that might resemble the prophetic pneuma that formerly set whole communities ablaze and welded them together. . . . For those who are unable to bear this present fate with manliness, there is only this piece of advice: go back silently—without giving to your gesture the publicity dear to renegades, but simply and without ceremony—to the old churches who keep their arms widely open.
This eloquent conclusion bears, and needs, rereading today. There is nothing antiquated or quaint about it. On the contrary, the stripping down of the public square and the flight into private realms have continued apace, coupled with the ever growing power of science to mold every aspect of our lives, including the most intimate. As a consequence, public life is more and more exclusively filled with private lives: what remains of "the public" is nothing but the publicization of "the private"—or so it seems.
Of course, this assessment could be said to miss the fundamental fact of modern society which, under the appearance of meaninglessness, is the coming–into–being of the noblest principles of all, democracy and self–determination. There is no doubt that Weber, however friendly to its political institutions, underestimates the strength and resilience of democracy, perhaps its human meaning and range. In his eyes democracy is no match—no remedy—for the disenchantment of the world, and for a good reason: it results from it. It is unable to reunify modern human beings since it ratifies and, so to speak, institutionalizes their intimate divisions.
If we take seriously Science as a Vocation, we will say that there is a gaping hole, a void, a meaninglessness at the heart of modern life since science, the highest and sole truly public activity, is meaningless. At the same time, if modern man wants to be equal to the task of science, he ought to look this nothingness in the face without blinking. In this sense, nihilism, at least this nihilism, is not only our curse but also our duty. Weber’s eloquence aimed at keeping us awake and forcing our gaze toward this central nothingness. Thus the most authoritative, nay, the only authoritative voice in the realm of social and political thought in this century was a desperate voice.
It is impossible to put Max Weber behind us. Because he looms so large, it is difficult for us to see how the human phenomenon appeared before he separated science and life. But let us be alert enough to realize how strange and lopsided our intellectual and moral life currently is. Each and every human thing is fair game for science. Through separating facts from values we are able to divert the mighty flow of reality into the bottles of science.
But there is no reciprocity: science is never allowed to come back to illuminate reality and life. Democracy is predicated on the basic intelligence of the common man, which in turn is predicated on the inherent intelligibility of life, at least of the current occurrences of life. As a result, democracy is the regime that has the least tolerance for nihilism. (And nihilism breeds contempt for democracy.) To say that life is intelligible is not to say that it is unproblematic or without mystery. It is only to say that what we do is naturally accompanied by what we think and say, or that we ordinarily give some account of what we do. Our actions are many, and our accounts often conflicting, and so we reflect and deliberate and debate. The life of the mind is inherently dialectical—although, through the separation of facts and values, we have often lost sight of that reality.
Weber well understood that the separation between life and science was in some sense unbearable for ordinary mankind, and he rightly noticed that the attendant discomfort gave rise to fake monumentalism, spurious prophesying, and pedantic fanaticism. Certainly Europe would soon experience all those ugly phenomena on a scale that the desperate Weber had not anticipated even in his most desperate mood. Very roughly, we could say that totalitarianism was the attempt to fuse together science and life. In communism, the fusion was forced through the despotism of "science"—understood vulgarly. In Nazism, the fusion came through the despotism of "life"—again, understood in an utterly vulgar way.
Totalitarianism was the experimentum crucis for political philosophy in our century. Through it political philosophy was radically tested, and was found wanting. The mere fact that such terrible enterprises could arise was proof that European thinkers had not developed and spread a rational and humane understanding of modern political circumstances. This claim does not presuppose the proposition, abstract to the point of meaninglessness, that "ideas govern the world"—only the sound observation that human beings are thinking animals who need tolerably accurate ideas and evaluations to orient themselves in the world. This truism is the truer the more intellectually active and able the person concerned. It would be unfair to extend culpability for this century’s crimes into the past indefinitely, but it is true that, after Hegel elaborated his synthesis, no other philosopher was able to give a satisfactory, that is, an impartial, account of the modern State and society. Political philosophy after Hegel was not able to give a nearly satisfactory account of totalitarianism during and even after the fact.
Michael Oakeshott once remarked that great political philosophies are generally answers to specific political predicaments. It is easy to document this proposition from Plato and Aristotle, through Machiavelli and Hobbes, to Rousseau and Hegel. As I observed at the outset, the twentieth century did not elicit such comprehensive answers from political reflection, and this despite the fact that its predicament was of the most extreme sort: devastating world wars, murderous revolutions, beastly tyrannies. If there ever was a time for writing a new Leviathan, that was it.
But our most impressive documents are novels: which political treatise on communism is a match for 1984 or Animal Farm or One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich or The Yawning Heights? And what a strange commentary on this situation that, for some readers at least, the most suggestive introduction to Nazi tyranny is to be found in On the Marmor Cliffs (1939), a fable whose author, Ernst Jünger, was a soldier and adventurer with more than a passing complicity with the nihilistic mood that fomented Hitler’s rise to power. Some will object that this indictment is unfair, that many penetrating books on communism, fascism, and Nazism have been written by historians, social scientists, and political philosophers; indeed, that the notion of totalitarianism itself got its currency and credit more from philosophy than from literature; and that at least one philosophical book on the subject—Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951)—won a fame and exercised a power of fascination comparable to those of the literary works I have just mentioned. The objection is valid as far as it goes. We need to take stock of this momentous debate.
For political philosophers, dealing with Nazism and communism was difficult. These unprecedented political phenomena required a specific effort of analysis, yet most of the interpreters no longer had much place in their thought for political categories, especially the notion of regime. Their natural reaction was to make sense of these new forms of politics by subsuming them under nonpolitical categories with which they were more familiar. For instance, communism came to be understood as the domination of "bureaucracy," or as "bureaucratic state capitalism," a Trotskyist mantra widely used in France and elsewhere. As for Nazism, not a few on the left would see in it the instrument of "the most reactionary strata of financial capital," while many on the right saw just another avatar of "eternal Germany."
Of course these definitions, however fashionable for a time, could not long satisfy honest or discerning people, who eventually elaborated and gave credit to the notion of totalitarianism as a new and specific regime. We can be grateful to those who introduced this notion, because more than any other it helped us to look at the facts, to "save the phenomena," so to speak, and accordingly to evaluate more adequately the thorough ugliness of the whole thing. At the same time, however, totalitarianism remained an ad hoc construct. The discussion of it mainly concerned the marks, or criteria, of totalitarianism: whether "ideology" or "terror" or both together were principal or necessary components of any "totalitarian" regime. The proponents of the notion were prone to try to outbid one another by concentrating attention on the most extreme characteristics of these regimes, with the result that, as in Hannah Arendt’s case, the notion is not even applicable to Nazism and communism except in their most extreme fits of terror and murder. This bidding war induced the mainstream of political scientists to renounce the notion completely, or to dilute it until it became unrecognizable and useless.
The facts of Nazism and communism obliged honest and discerning observers to elaborate the notion of a new regime. At the same time, this "regime" was the opposite of a regime. The classical regime, harking back to Plato’s and Aristotle’s first elaboration of political philosophy, is what gives political life its relative stability and intelligibility. The totalitarian "regime," on the contrary, was characterized first of all by its instability and its formlessness. It described itself, accurately, as essentially a movement: the "international Communist movement," or die NZ–Bewegung (Munich was called by the Nazis die Hauptstadt der Bewegung [the capital of the movement]). Arendt herself was acutely aware of the paradoxical character of totalitarianism. In a piece titled "Ideology and Terror," Arendt borrows from Montesquieu’s analysis and classification of regimes to try to categorize the totalitarian regime. For Montesquieu, each regime has a nature and a principle. The principle is the more important, since it is the "spring" that "moves" the regime. Now, explains Arendt, totalitarianism has no principle, not even fear—which is the principle of "despotism" according to Montesquieu. For fear to be a principal motive of action, the individual would need to think or feel that he is able to escape danger through his own actions; under totalitarianism, on the other hand, where the killings wax and wane without any discernible reason, this sense cannot be sustained. Raymond Aron’s commentary on Arendt’s analysis is severe but illuminating:
One cannot help asking oneself whether Mrs. Arendt’s thesis, thus formulated, is not contradictory. A regime without a principle is not a regime. . . . As a regime, it exists solely in its author’s imagination. In other words, when Mrs. Arendt elaborates some aspects of Hitlerite and Stalinist phenomena into a regime, a political essence, she brings out and probably exaggerates the originality of German or Russian totalitarianism. Mistaking this admittedly real originality for a fundamentally new regime, she is induced to read into our epoch the negation of classical philosophies and thus to slide into a contradiction: defining a working regime by an essence which so to speak implies the impossibility of its working.
This sharp criticism undoubtedly hits the mark. But Arendt would probably hit back that the "contradiction" is not of her making: it belongs to the "contradictory essence" of totalitarianism.
It is interesting to note that Alain Besançon, a distinguished French historian who studied with Aron, rediscovered and trenchantly brought out this difficulty twenty years later. In an article aptly titled "On the Difficulty of Defining the Soviet Regime," Besançon tries and exhausts Aristotle’s and Montesquieu’s classifications of regimes, concluding that the Soviet regime does not fit into any of them. In his eyes it is an "absolutely new" regime, and its newness lies in the part played by "ideology." Besançon proposes that instead of "totalitarianism" we simply classify communism as an "ideological regime." In their different ways, Arendt, Aron, and Besançon all draw our attention to the problem of relating totalitarianism to the tradition of political philosophy. The totalitarian regime seems to be the regime embodying the negation of the idea of regime, and accordingly the irrelevance of classical political philosophy.
More than any other thinker in this century, Leo Strauss tried to recover the genuine meaning of political philosophy. Indeed, political philosophy as originally understood owes its bare survival—fittingly unobtrusive to the point of secretiveness—to Leo Strauss’ sole and unaided efforts. Without him, the philosophy of history, or historicism of any stripe, would have swallowed political philosophy completely. For Strauss, in seeming contradiction to what I have just said, twentieth–century experiences were motives for going back to political philosophy, specifically to classical political philosophy: "When we were brought face to face with tyranny—with a kind of tyranny that surpassed the boldest imagination of the most powerful thinkers of the past—our political science failed to recognize it. It is not surprising then that many of our contemporaries . . . were relieved when they rediscovered the pages in which Plato and other classical thinkers seemed to have interpreted for us the horrors of the twentieth century." Thus modern tyranny—Strauss carefully avoids the word "totalitarianism"—brings us back to ancient tyranny as described and understood by Plato and other Greek thinkers.
At the same time, Strauss makes clear that there is in modern tyranny something specific, and terrible, that eludes the grasp of classical categories. The return to the Greeks can only be a "first step toward an exact analysis of present–day tyranny," he argued, for contemporary tyranny is "fundamentally different" from the tyranny analyzed by the ancients. How could Strauss offer such a proposition? Recall that he devoted his life to establishing that classical philosophy elaborated the true understanding of the world, founded on nature which does not change, and that accordingly it does not need to be superseded or improved upon by a new "historical" understanding. Given that, how could Leo Strauss admit that communism and fascism are fundamentally new? How could the political life of man undergo a fundamental change? He answers: "Present–day tyranny, in contradistinction to classical tyranny, is based on the unlimited progress in the ‘conquest of nature’ which is made possible by modern science, as well as on the popularization or diffusion of philosophic or scientific knowledge."
Strauss was perfectly aware that such a change, or at least the possibility of such a change, needs to have been taken into account by Greek philosophy if the claim he raises on its behalf is to be upheld. He affirms that that is the case: "Both possibilities—the possibility of a science that issues in the conquest of nature and the possibility of the popularization of philosophy or science—were known to the classics. . . . But the classics rejected them as ‘unnatural,’ i.e., as destructive of humanity. They did not dream of pre s ent–day tyranny because they regarded its basic presuppositions as so preposterous that they turned their imagination in entirely different directions." Thus, the Greek thinkers did not imagine modern tyranny because they understood its principles and saw that they would be so much against nature that there was no use dwelling on them.
However galling the affirmation that the Greeks understood us better than we understand them, and ourselves, it is not what most impresses us in Strauss’ assessment. It is rather that the two principles that make for the specific evil of modern tyranny are part and parcel of the foundation on which modern democracy was built. If this is true, modern tyranny would have as much in common with modern democracy as with ancient, i.e., "natural," tyranny.
We must not forget that these rare propositions of Strauss on contemporary political circumstances were formulated in the context of an exchange with Alexandre Kojève, one of the most influential interpreters of Hegel in this century. The Russian–born philosopher and French civil servant held that the conceptions of classical political philosophy have lost their relevance because the modern regime, or rather State, precisely through the transformation of nature and the reciprocal recognition implied in democratic citizenship, has basically solved the human problem. The unpalatable traits of modern "tyranny" must not blind us to the fact that "history has come to its end."
Thus Kojève is not much interested in the totalitarian phenomenon, the ugliness of which disappears against the big picture. However shocking Kojève’s benign neglect, even favor, toward Communist totalitarianism, he does draw our attention to the disturbing fact that modern democracy shares with totalitarianism the claim to have solved the human problem. Modern democracy understands itself not as a regime among others, not even as the best regime, but as the only legitimate regime: it embodies the final, because rational, state of humanity.
Here we encounter a topic as difficult and intricate as it is important. In the classical understanding, the plurality of regimes was rooted in the intrinsic diversity of human nature, in the heterogeneity of its parts: human beings were soul and body, and the life of the human soul had its springs in the specific motions of its different parts. In the modern democratic understanding, a human being is first and foremost a self, and mankind as a whole is simply the fulfilled self writ large, which is to say, considered universally. This generalization is valid only if all the selves of all the human beings are in some important sense the same. The affirmation of the self, or the self–affirmation of humankind as composed of selves, thus presupposes the homogeneity of human nature. For the modern understanding, the solution of the human problem is one with the homogenization of human life.
A mighty task—an indefinite one—is contained herein, because that homogeneity can never be complete, or it will be so only "at the end of history," when nature, human as well as nonhuman, will have been mastered. But in some sense, and this is Kojève’s point, we have already reached a sufficient level of mastery. The science necessary for the conquest of nature is without end, it is true, but that means that its power is destined to grow without end, which means that reason allows us to imagine ourselves all–powerful already. As for human life proper, oppressive differences will long continue to arise, but they are in principle already vanquished by the declaration and institutionalization of the equality of rights. In brief, the miracles of science and the good works of democracy are attested enough to legitimate faith that liberal democracy has answered all the big questions of politics.
Of course faith can be lost. When the good works of democracy are less apparent, or when the delicate mechanisms of constitutional government, necessary for guaranteeing rights, are not available in a certain situation, the temptation arises to make good on the promises of democracy by every means available, that is, even or especially by antidemocratic means, to bring science to completion and achieve human homogeneity by overturning democracy.
Herein lies what has been aptly called the "totalitarian temptation." In this sense, as the French philosopher Claude Lefort has pointed out in L’invention démocratique (1981), his acute analysis of democracy, totalitarianism is the attempt to "embody" or "incorporate" democracy, to transform "indeterminate" democracy into a visible "body." Democracy is "indeterminate" because, in the democratic dispensation, the "seat of power" is "void"—occupied only provisionally by succeeding representatives. The King’s presence was overwhelming; the democratic statesmen’s is ordinarily underwhelming. As long as the citizens have not accustomed themselves to the worthy but modest function of choosing their representatives, the representatives will not be a match for the majesty of the people. Some demagogue will explain to the people that he will lead them to the empty place so that they themselves will occupy the seat of power: "Totalitarianism establishes a mechanism which . . . aims to weld anew power and society, to obliterate all the signs of social division, to banish the indetermination which haunts democratic experience. . . . From democracy and against it a body is thus made anew." When writing those lines, Lefort had principally in mind the Soviet regime, but it is clear that "race," no less than "class," can offer the basis for the building of this new homogeneous body.
Thus Lefort, drawing part of his inspiration from the phenomenological tradition, brings to our attention the bodily character of the political, or the political character of the body. This close relationship, although coming to the surface of speech in common expressions like "political body" or "body politic," has long been obscured in our democratic dispensation. Our forefathers, on the contrary, were well aware of it. Indeed how best to define the predemocratic order? If we look for one synthetic trait, then we will define it as an order founded on filiation. Everyone’s place in society was in principle determined by his or her "birth." One’s name and estate were determined through heritage. There were only families, poor or rich, common or noble, but each one governed by the head of family.
In contradistinction to ancient cities, in which heads of families were roughly equal politically and participated in the same "public space," in Western predemocratic societies there was no public space. Or rather, what was public was the family analogy, the logic of filiation and paternity, the fact that the same representation of the human ties or bonds circulated throughout the whole. Ultimately, what was public, that is, what was sacred, was the person of the King, that is, the King’s body.
This familial order, based as it was on the fecundity of the body and on accidents of birth, strikes us today as bizarre and even disgusting. If we are sophisticated enough, we will say with cool competence: it was the value system of our forefathers, ours is different, and our grandchildren’s will again be different from it and ours. I’m afraid I am not so sophisticated. This familial order was not just a value system or a cultural construct. It drew its strength, its durability, its quasi–universal validity (before democracy) from the general awareness that it was rooted not only in an undoubtedly natural fact, but in the fact that, so to speak, sums up "nature," that is, birth and filiation.
Even among scholars, it is a common mistake to confuse any political reference to "the body" with "organicism." It is then seen either as a mere figure of speech, or, more ominously, as a "holistic" representation fraught with oppressive potentialities. As a matter of fact, a "body" is very different from what is generally understood by "organism." In the latter, the part is strictly subordinated to the whole. In the former, the whole is present and active in each part. Thus the idea of the body is not at all a mechanical, or even a physical, idea. It is, on the contrary, a spiritual idea: each part is at the same time itself and the whole. In this sense, every society, every polity, is a body.
These very sketchy observations help us to understand the meaning and strength of the order of the body, and by the same token to wonder at its swift and nearly complete demise. Lefort describes the nature, and appreciates the enormity, of the process as follows:
The ancien régime was made up of innumerable little bodies that provided people with their bearings. And those little bodies disposed themselves within a huge imaginary body of which the King’s body offers a replica and the token of its integrity. The democratic revolution, long underground, blows up when the King’s body is destroyed, when the head of the body politic falls to the ground, when accordingly the corporeity of society dissolves. Then something happens which I would dare to call the disincorporation of individuals. Extraordinary phenomenon. . . .
Why was it such an "extraordinary phenomenon"? To put it in a nutshell: while previous societies organized themselves so as to bind their members together, while they extolled the ideas of concord and unity, our democratic society organizes itself so as to untie, even to separate, its members, and thus guarantee their independence and their rights. In this sense, our society proposes to fulfill itself as a dis–society. An extraordinary phenomenon indeed!
But will not a society thus dissociating be unable to carry on, to say nothing of prospering? That is the recurrent fear in modern society, voiced by conservatives and socialists alike, with even a few liberals joining in at times. But as a matter of fact, belying all the prophets of doom, democratic societies have maintained their cohesion, they have prospered; indeed, they offer today—the vast bulk of mankind agrees on this point—the only viable and desirable way of organizing a decent common life. So we must infer that their continuous decomposition has been accompanied by a continuous recomposition. What is the principle of this recomposition? To cut a very long story short: it is the principle of representation. As Lefort emphasizes, the order of representation has succeeded the order of incorporation. And the principle behind the principle of representation is the will—the will of people—a purely spiritual principle. The ultimate mainspring of democratic society is the fecundity of human will, or rather the capacity of the will to produce desirable effects.
Let us retrace our journey so far. I have argued that totalitarianism has been the experimentum crucis for political philosophy in this century, and that political philosophy, thus tested, was found wanting. We are able now to give a more precise assessment. The perplexities that attend the inquiry into the nature of totalitarian regimes do not arise solely from the peculiarly enigmatic essence of those regimes. Or rather, their enigmatic essence derives from another enigma or uncertainty, one that also concerns democracy. The uncertainty is this: where, and what, is the people’s will? How can a purely spiritual principle give form and life to a body politic? The "totalitarian temptation" is made possible by, and takes place in, the uncharted territory between the "body" of predemo cratic society and the "soul" of democratic politics. There is much more here than a glib metaphor. Indeed, we are at the heart of our practical and theoretical difficulties: herein lies the task of political philosophy, if it cares to have one.
We need to return again and again to the contrast between predemocratic and democratic societies, and to the dialectics between the two. This insistence may seem odd to Americans, since the U.S. had no real experience of predemocratic society and does not seem to be worse off for it: as Tocqueville so memorably said, "Americans are born equal, instead of becoming so." But my proposal is for a philosophical inquiry, not a historical one.
We begin with a paradox. We instinctively think that predemocratic societies gave an advantage to the soul as opposed to the body, even as we instinctively suppose that democratic societies have rejected the excessive pretensions of the soul and have "liberated the body," or, in Saint–Simonian parlance, "rehabilitated the flesh." These impressions are not simply erroneous; there is much truth in them. But at the same time we could say that the opposite also is true. We have seen that predemocratic societies were "incorporated" societies, rooted in the fecundity of the body, culminating in the King’s body. As for democratic societies, while they are not particularly religious, they are politically and morally spiritualist, even otherwordly. Electing a representative, unlike begetting an heir, is the work of the will—of the mind or the soul.
That spirituality holds true not only in political relations, but in social and moral life as well. Democratic societies typically insist that all our bonds, including our bodily ones, have their origin in a purely spiritual decision, a decision reached in full spiritual sovereignty. We reject any suggestion that the body could create bonds by itself, that there could be ties rooted essentially in the "flesh." The "new family" results from the growing understanding of marriage and parenthood as "continuous choice." Even bodily intercourse is no longer supposed to create bonds by itself, to have meaning by itself: it does so only as far, and as long, as the will makes it so. Such meaning the will is free to confer and withdraw "at will." We increasingly behave, and we increasingly interpret our behavior, as if we were angels who happen to have bodies. Carnal knowledge is no longer such.
No wonder, then, that what goes by the name of political philosophy or theory today is rather angel ology. In an otherwordly space—perhaps separated from this earth by a "veil of ignorance"—beings who are no longer, or not yet, truly human deliberate over the conditions under which they would consent to land on our lowly planet and don our "too solid flesh." They hesitate a lot, as well they might, and their abstract reasonings are complex and multifarious, if so hypothetical that they carry little weight. Political thought cannot indulge indefinitely to live in an atmosphere that is at the same time rarefied and vulgar. Totalitarianism, it is true, has been defeated without much contribution from political philosophy, and democracy seems to sail on unchallenged. But even in practical terms, it is not prudent to lean exclusively on the workaday virtues of the democratic citizenry.
We need to recapture something of what democracy left behind in its march to supremacy. Modern democracy has successfully asserted and realized the homogeneity of human life, but it is now required to try to recover and salvage the intrinsic heterogeneity of human experiences. The experience of the citizen is different from that of the artist, which in turn is different from that of the religious person, and so on. These decisive articulations of human life would be hopelessly blurred if the current conceit prevailed that every human being, as "creator of his or her own values," is at the same time an artist, a citizen, and a religious person—indeed, all these things and more. Against this conceit, political philosophers should undertake to bring to light again the heterogeneity of human life.
It might be argued that this heterogeneity is adequately taken care of through the public acknowledgment of the legitimate plurality of human values. Nothing could be more mistaken. As Leo Strauss once tersely remarked, pluralism is a monism, being an –ism. The same self–destructive quality attaches itself to our "values." To interpret the world of experience as constituted of admittedly diverse "values" is to reduce it to this common genus, and thus to lose sight of that heterogeneity we wanted to preserve. If God is a value, the public space a value, the moral law within my heart a value, the starry sky above my head a value . . . what is not? At the same time, for this is confusion’s great masterpiece, the "value language" makes us lose the unity of human life—this necessary component of democratic self–consciousness—just as it blurs its diversity: you don’t argue about values since their value lies in the valuation of the one who puts value on them. Value language, with the inner dispositions it encourages, makes for dreary uniformity and unintelligible heterogeneity at the same time.
Certainly Max Weber would look with consternation on a state of things he unwillingly did so much to advance. As Science as a Vocation makes clear, he devoted his uncommon strength of mind and soul to the task for which I have just entered my feeble plea: to recover, or to salvage, the genuine diversity of human experiences. He was undoubtedly right to underline that the Beautiful is not the same as the Good or the True. But then, or so it seems to me, he crossed the line. Why interpret this internal differentiation of human life as a conflict, even as a "war"—the "war of the gods" attendant to the "polytheism" of human "values"? Why say that we know that some things are beautiful because they are not good? Why say that we know that some beings are good or holy because and inasmuch as they are not beautiful? It seems that Weber here let himself be carried away by the restlessness of his spirit. How impatient we moderns have become! If two things don’t match exactly, then they must be enemies.
Perhaps we have been impatient and restless from the beginning. Was not Descartes, the father of Enlightenment, as well the father of our impatience when he deliberately equated what is doubtful with what is false? How much wiser in my opinion was Leibniz, who tranquilly countered that what is true is true, what is false is false, and what is doubtful is . . . well, it is doubtful. We need Leibniz’s equanimity more than Descartes’ impatience, so that we may sojourn within our different experiences, and draw from each its specific lesson.
The same human being, after all, admires what is beautiful, is motivated by what is good, and pursues the truth. Sometimes he comes across a "brave bad man," as it befell Lord Clarendon; or he meets a fair treacherous woman. These complexities, sometimes even incongruities, of human experience need to be described accurately. Generally, the more bold the colors, the less exact the drawing. Human life does not warrant despair, and the social sciences do not warrant nihilism, because human life is humanly intelligible.
It is possible, even probable, that the democratic regime could not have come into being without the impatience of Descartes and others; it is possible as well that democratic citizens would have fallen asleep if not for the strident clarion calls of Weber and others. But victorious and mature democracy would do well to temper these extreme moods and open itself to the inner diversity of human experience as it claims to be open to the outer diversity of the human species. This would seem to be a tall order: for now, at least, few political philosophers have given it heed.
Pierre Manent is Director of Studies at the école des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris. His books include Tocqueville and the Nature of Democracy and The City of Man. This essay is adapted from a conference paper delivered at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., in June 1999.